Lately, I have been humbled.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Emmanuel Levinas and his contributions to philosophy, particularly existentialism and phenomenology. He says many relevant and fascinating things, one of which is that we must be aware of (our) materiality, which includes the spiritual as well as the physical in his system of thought. It’s the material that places us in the present, for when we suffer, we are forced to confront the present, we are forced to confront the moment, no matter how hard this is.
I have had to do that lately in my life.
I will try to keep a long story short: I was told, among other things, by loved ones, people that I trusted and loved, that my time would have been better spent getting real experiences in a place like the military or Marines, instead of writing all of the books that I slaved away to write; reading those books and writing those books (as some have told me before) does not equal real or valid experience; it isn’t “realism.” Not only is this an affront and open threat to my life’s work, it comes in the context of much more denigrating and dehumanizing comments, which I won’t go into here, but we’ll say simply: I’m in a tough spot, and I am confronting my suffering, the present. I am literally, currently, overcoming episodes of intense psychosis and suicidal ideation and depression, among other things.
In the midst of all of this internal turmoil, which, to be frank, has humbled me and shocked me and hurt me in ways I never could have seen coming, I got the opportunity to potentially volunteer to feed the homeless a meal. Actually, I’m not sure if this was completely true, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
A family member, who knows I do work with the homeless, invited me to come serve today. I went with her, needing a chance to fill my life up with something positive, especially because I was hurting so much from trauma and recent life events, and the hell my mind puts me through.
So, I went. I found it was a free clinic, with a dining hall and a church, among other things.
The plan was for me to serve the homeless, right? Well, I go with my relative and we go to search for someone who can give me the okay on working. But when we can’t find her, we ask someone who looks to be in charge, and she says, “No, you can’t volunteer. We already have forty volunteers, Texas Tech kids.”
I have long known that work in the volunteering industry, a platform that provides no payment, is still set up with “office politics” and is set up hierarchically. This means if you aren’t “in,” you can bet that you won’t be given the chance to serve, make a difference, or be respected, for that matter. I experienced this countless times before I started working with The Legacy Initiative, and it was very degrading and dehumanizing. So this didn’t surprise me.
I knew that I didn’t have a stake in it, so to speak, there was no reason to technically fight for a position to volunteer, because I had nothing to lose. But I knew that it was the right thing to at least see what the possibilities were. When I’m looking at a free health clinic and seeing the need, there’s need. It’s just a matter of seeing where you are needed. So I persisted.
This offhand comment by this lady in charge was demeaning because it implies one of excess authority and power. She talked about the lucky volunteers as if they were lottery winners. As if they were privileged. In my already vulnerable mind state, this upset me because it reminded me of the good old days, when I was hunting around for any chance to serve, and was constantly humiliated and made to feel like my intelligence and Bachelor’s in English and desire to serve weren’t good enough. It was the usual power play. Of course, the apologist would just argue that if there are enough volunteers, then yes, of course I couldn’t volunteer: But since when did serving others become a commodity (thinking of Karl Marx …) and so institutionalized that an eager soul couldn’t do anything whatsoever?
But it got better (?). I had to hang out for a little bit, an hour or so, and I finally found the person in charge. I told her I’d like to serve, and that I was waiting for my relative. She said okay, she’d talk to me soon.
Thinking I was going to have the chance to volunteer now, and serve others, and do good for the world, I waited. But my relative didn’t come. So I went up to her later and said, “You can go ahead and put me to work if you’d like,” as kindly and politely as I could.
She expressed little interest in wanting to deal with me, blew me off for a moment to address someone “more important,” then insisted that she had to see who I came with before I could do anything.
Well, she did come, my relative, and she asked if I could do anything, and it was made clear that I … couldn’t. I could have served dinner, but dinner was already served. So I could try the clothes line and give out clothes, but … that was my best bet.
So, we went there, to see. But of course, they were fine.
So, I’d just wasted three to four hours of my life, in the midst of an already devastated state of mind.
I don’t have much more to say. An apologist would quickly point out that I’m being overly paranoid about the whole thing, that when they have enough people to serve, they don’t need you. Okay, cool. I can accept that. But what I hope such an apologist could accept is that, even though my statements wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny, because they are mere feelings, they are still nonetheless my feelings, and they tell me things. They tell me this: This is exactly why it is so hard to do good for others. People don’t appreciate it, they take it for granted, they deny you the opportunity, and I am all too familiar with these tactics. It’s dehumanizing and patronizing, among other things: You are manipulated into thinking your efforts are meaningless, and no one cares if you want to serve others and make the world a better place. (Unless you have money or power.)
Because this isn’t an advertisement for The Legacy Initiative, I’ll just say this: Legacy is the only place I have found in my twenty-seven years of existence where I can do good for others. It’s because they are the only ones willing to give me a chance, because they value me and they value what I can do for them.
To be clear, this experience is disappointing for my own personal baggage reasons: I’m under a lot of stress right now, pounding out this essay in a frenzy of despair and loneliness and isolation, because as I’ve said, I’m hurt right now. Very hurt. Vulnerable. But as my friend Travis has said, we are beautiful when we are vulnerable, and I’m going to make the best out of my bad situation.
It’s just a disappointment, right? Soon enough, I’ll be serving others with love and care and compassion: Just you watch. And it will be because I haven’t forgotten how to love. It’s because, I care, and I bleed for others, even if it’s never reciprocated back, even by people I love.